The “Bartender’s Choice” order epitomizes many of the virtues of cocktail culture: a handcrafted drink created à la minute, born out of conversation, uniquely tailored from among thousands of permutations to the drinker’s palate and mood.
Ryan Chetiyawardana, one of the world’s most innovative bartenders and the founder of award-winning London bars like White Lyan and Dandelyan, is betting that the same fundamental premise can be pushed to the highest echelon of luxury service. His new project, Mr Lyan’s Time Capsules, which launched at the end of last year, offers customers a couture-level drink creation meant to reflect their individuality—a kind of “portraiture for our era,” he says, priced between 10,000 and 100,000 pounds per cocktail.
Roughly ten years ago, Chetiyawardana started crafting bottled cocktails for his two sisters, Karen and Natasha, who brought them to work events and parties or sent them to friends or clients as gifts. A self-proclaimed whiskey geek, he’d assembled a deep library of spirits acquired at auctions and through cellar-hunting, which he began to tap as he went beyond classics to construct more imaginative, personalized drinks. “Having access to some of these old spirits and seeing how people were getting really excited by it” gave him the idea to turn it into a small private practice, which currently offers three tiers of service.
Starting at 10,000 pounds a client based in the UK can, in the course of a consultation, sample spirits from Chetiyawardana’s private collection to create a profile of their tastes, which he then distills into a singular bottled cocktail. From 50,000 pounds and up, clients will engage in a longer, more detailed discussion that yields a drink more tailored to their unique palate. The last cocktail Chetiyawardana created conjured the smells and tastes of rural France by fermenting walnut into a kombucha syrup fortified with gentian liqueur, mixed with vin jaune, very old Chartreuse and crème de cacao—a blend of flavors meant to evoke 20th-century Hine Cognac.
For the truly deep-pocketed based anywhere in the world, a starting price of 100,000 pounds will get you a dinner and a long interview encompassing the strongest memories of your life, a tasting of extremely valuable spirits and a bespoke cocktail composed of some of the rarest booze, designed to lay down and age like a vintage port or first-growth Bordeaux. “Their biology, their background, where they’ve grown up is all connected to their sense of taste,” says Chetiyawardana. “I’m trying to focus in on the bits that maybe they don’t focus on themselves, but that are a real reflection of who they are.” Following the consultation period, it generally takes about two weeks to assemble the Time Capsule. Once it’s finished, the cocktail is meant to age for at least six months to allow the flavors to marry. If the customer is looking to commemorate a certain event, Chetiyawardana might build the drink with five, ten or even 20 years of aging in mind.
“It’s a very expensive product,” he says. “I’m not going to say it’s something that’s super accessible to everyone. But if you are in that class, you can buy all the nice things you want, but how do you have something that feels more fitting of yourself?”
The spirits poured into the Time Capsules are “rare as hell,” ranging from auction-bought vintage vermouth and sherry to aged whiskies, like 1972 BenRiach and 1964 Bowmore (valued at around $33,000 a bottle). But Chetiyawardana attributes the pricing just as much to the level of curation, the knowledge of how flavors gradually blend and the time spent assembling. “You want the elements to meld in a way that you can’t quite work out where the spice stops and where the fruit begins,” he says. “You get a kind of harmonization of flavors. They develop an ethereal kind of fleetingness.” Aging bottled cocktails can also produce a different weightiness in the drink; he’s experimented with letting cocktails sit on the lees of old port wines to create new levels of texture.
Chetiyawardana is accustomed to pushing the envelope on cocktail and bar culture into contexts you wouldn’t normally associate with drinking. His now-shuttered White Lyan was the pioneering zero-waste bar, operating without ice or perishables, and he’s played with ingredients like ambergris and koji mold to fashion drinks that seem inspired more by biology than the grammar of pre-Prohibition mixology. The bottle for his third Time Capsule client is a stereotype-skewering project crafted for an influential gender equality speaker that emphasizes the lightness of dark spirits and the heaviness of white spirits.
This latest venture seems to be an experiment in whether cocktails can become true luxury products while eschewing tacky Vegas-style antics like gem-encrusted glasses. It also raises the question of whether the bespoke element of such cocktails could make them as desirable to one-percenters as collecting artwork, Aston Martins and fine wine. Whether the vintage spirits market as a whole is poised to crack that ceiling, beyond the realm of obsessive collectors, remains to be seen.
“It’s a totally different scene in Europe,” says Alex Bachman, founder of Chicago-based vintage spirits broker Sole Agent. He has seen the vintage spirits market in the U.S. continue to grow as demand has risen; in the past year and a half, prices for vintage Campari have tripled, he says. “Bourbon is still an explosive market, and I’ve seen bottles of Chartreuse for $6,000 or $7,000.” But his experience with high-end curation services has been limited to a few private requests to build a personal library of rare and vintage spirits.
A project like Time Capsules does point to the advantage and unique potential of bottled vintage-spirit cocktails to combine the hallmarks of luxury: the ageability and scarcity associated with the fine-wine market and the personal customization of mixed drinks. Chetiyawardana gifted two friends who were getting married a Time Capsule bottle, which they opened five years later on their anniversary. “It was a very emotional thing for them,” he says. “It’s a kind of memory of a life well-lived.”